Henry doubts BBC diversity plan
2:10pm Tuesday 24th June 2014 in © Press Association 2014
Lenny Henry has cast doubt on the BBC's ability to boost diversity with its new £2.1 million plan.
The comic and actor told the Culture, Media and Sport select committee that Britain had been haemorrhaging talent to the US because of the mistaken belief that ethnic minority actors do not have star power.
BBC Director-General Tony Hall announced last week a plan to set up a £2.1 million "diversity creative talent fund" to help "fast-track" shows by ethnic minority talent on to the screen and create a series of development programmes.
But Lenny told MPs: "Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba didn't need more training, they just needed a break."
Idris shot to fame in US show The Wire, before starring in Luther and the movie Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom - while Chiwetel recently won acclaim for his role in the film 12 Years A Slave.
Lenny added: "Development is great but there are people absolutely trained and ready to rock... it's odd. The inference seems to be 'oh you're not ready yet... here's a little bit of development money, go away and practise a bit more until you're ready'."
He said of Lord Hall's plans: "It has the greatest of intentions but with massive respect it is based on an old model that hasn't worked... increased training and increased development funds do not deliver change... but jobs do."
Henry, who shot to fame when he won talent show New Faces in 1975, said: "Idris Elba did not need more training to be a great actor, he just needed a break... back in the day when I entered New Faces... I just needed a break."
He said: "There is initiative fatigue. People have lost hope and don't believe that yet one more initiative will achieve true diversity.
"At the BBC alone in the last 15 years there have been 29 initiatives to achieve ethnic diversity and the numbers are actually going down.
"Things are being done but they're not really working."
Lenny wants to see money ring-fenced specifically for ethnic minority productions.
He said: "This is not about tokenism, about black people working on black programmes and Chinese people making a documentary about Chinese New Year every now and again... this is about driving up quality."
The comedian said that any show, from Doctor Who to Question Time, could meet his criteria, which includes boosting the number of on-screen as well as production staff from ethnic minorities, and that his model could "apply to all the broadcasters".
He said: "We are haemorrhaging talent in this country ...There was this idea floating around that (black and ethnic minority actors) don't have enough star power to drive a feature film or a long-running TV series.
"People like Idris Elba, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Archie Panjabi and Chiwetel Ejiofor have disproven this. They're from here. They could be benefiting us here. This is all about benefiting our country and representing us as a global force."
Patrick Younge, the former chief creative officer of BBC Television Production, said of the BBC's £2.1 million plans: "It's a well intentioned move. But it's addressing the wrong part of the problem," adding that "more (black and ethnic minority staff) left the BBC than joined... they went backwards..."
He said: "£2.1 million, it's tiny... it's three episodes of Luther in terms of on-air spend."
The session came the day after Diane Coyle, the acting chairman of the BBC Trust, admitted the corporation's flagship soap EastEnders is "almost twice" as white as the real east London.
Mr Younge admitted: "The first Asian family we introduced into EastEnders were, I think, Goan Christians...you have to go some in the East End to have Goan Christians as the first Asian family... every Asian in Britain knew that, when it came to authenticity, the BBC missed the mark.
"Somebody said about Luther...great series but why did he have no black friends? These are the real questions that people start asking."
A BBC spokesperson defended the Corporation's plans, saying: "Last week we set out far reaching plans that we believe will make a tangible difference - we will work hard to deliver them and of course reserve the option of going further if we fall short, but people should judge us on progress over the coming months and years before concluding the need for even more measures."
The BBC announced a series of proposals to make "a tangible difference" in the number of people it employs from ethnic minority backgrounds, while Henry also signed up to a committee advising the corporation on its representation of ethnic minorities.